As I’ve mentioned about a dozen times, we are not newbies to Ireland. We’ve been traveling to Limerick, and around the west, for about 15 years. During our first trip to Ireland, our aunt and uncle drove us around to see the main sites. Since that time, our trips involve hanging in Limerick, or on the coast in Kilkee, often with a Guinness in hand. Our trips focus on meals with family. Thus, unlike most of our travels, which focus heavily on food travel, we’ve yet to delve into the concept of Irish food tourism.
In fact, I did not really know that Irish food tourism even existed. Many people come to Ireland on heritage tours, to learn where their family comes from. Or, they come to drive through the verdant countryside, looking for fuzzy sheep along the way. They probably dream of the Cliffs of Moher, and the rest of the stunningly beautiful Wild Atlantic Way coast line. But, coming to Ireland for food? That’s another story.
Grow Local, Buy Local
All across Europe, about a decade ago, the trend was focused on shopping for convenience. As younger generations began to avoid the beautiful historic food markets in favor of big box shops and chain stores, it seemed almost as though the original charm of Europe was destined for obsolescence. It was more likely you would find a young mom shopping at Lidl than you would at a traditional market.
The pendulum, though, is swinging back to grow local, buy local in much of Europe. Farmer’s markets are picking up, traditional city markets like Santa Catarina in Barcelona are getting a facelift. Both locals and tourists alike are focusing on artisan producers, as people are more concerned with understanding where their food comes from.
Ireland, however, is often behind the rest of Europe in many trends. In fact, if you ask our family in Limerick, they will tell you that small shops are closing down because people prefer to shop at the big mega stores, which have cheaper prices. Trying to explain that the trend in the future will be grow local, buy local sort of falls on deaf ears. Trying to explain that artisan producers will thrive, both in quantity and quality in the future, seems like something from a far distant future. But, it’s just a matter of time before Ireland catches up in this regard.
Irish Food Trails
In a country where trips to the chipper are still a popular way to feed the family, it’s increasingly more important to start focusing on understanding where your food comes from. This means that the concept of Irish food tourism is more important than ever. I love the idea of food tourism when it focuses public resources not only on bringing in tourist dollars, but also on changing the way the local population consumes food.
Ireland is ripe for a new kind of travel, one that focuses on its fresh, local ingredients, and it’s traditional food. The Irish tourism board, in conjunction with many of the county governments, is starting to promote Irish Food Trails. The food trails are located in Dublin, Cork, and even in County Clare, where we spend a lot of our time. The focus of the food trail is to provide a map to tourists to show them were to find artisan producers, including bakers, chocolatiers, dairies, and Irish craft breweries. It helps to give these smaller producers another avenue for revenue as well.
One such trail exists in County Clare, along the Wild Atlantic Way. The Burren Food Trail’s motto is “Don’t Just Visit the Burren, Taste It.” The Burren is a relatively barren landscape on the west coast of Ireland. It’s known for hill tops covered in slate and rock, punctuated by stunning green. It’s firm on the tourist trail as it also is associated with the Cliffs of Moher.
The Burren Food Trail, though, offers a new kind of Irish food tourism by highlighting quality food from local food producers. From a farmer’s market in Ballyvaughan to the Burren Smokehouse to Irish craft beer breweries, bakeries, and butchers. Each of these producers also focus on a commitment to sustainability, along with growing and producing locally.
The goal of the Burren Food Trail is to help travelers and foodies understand the path their food takes, from farm to table. It enables travelers to explore the Burren region in a different way, by stopping to visit many of the producers. And, it helps to promote the local producers, to support them in the face of stiff competition from the big box shops.
A Wild Kitchen – Sustainable Irish Food Tourism
We just scratched the surface of the Irish food trail scene. For us, we focused on one of the more unique offerings from the Burren Food Trail, with Wild Food Walks and Wild Kitchen. We met Oonagh (pronounced “Una”) from Wild Kitchen on a rainy morning in Lahinch. She took us on a tour to demonstrate to us what the grow local movement is doing in the Burren area, both in terms of tourism and sustainability.
Oonagh’s Wild Kitchen offers information on foraging for local ingredients, including wild edible plants and seaweed. She offers information on how to grow your own wild ingredients, and how to use these ingredients in various recipes. Now, the idea of foraging for seaweed may seem just a bit too sustainable for a lot of people, but it demonstrates an overall trend, that people in Ireland are starting to think about these sorts of issues. For Oonagh she focuses on how these ingredients are all free!
But, beyond showing us the Wild Kitchen offerings, Oonagh led us on a tour of a few community gardens. The first was a small, but well organized plot of land that is managed and tended to by volunteers. They produce crates of local, organic produce, which is not used by the nearby restaurants, but instead is delivered right into the hands of the locals. This was something that I thought was a huge improvement in local sustainability, and is a small step forward in the right direction, away from the trend of purchasing at the big box food stores.
Oonagh also showed us her own community garden, which is tended to by about twenty families. The garden not only produces organic flowers and vegetables to the neighborhood, but also serves as an outdoor community center, where they hold music and events during the summer months. In that community garden, Oonagh let us try her seaweed and kale chips, along with some other treats that she has made with all locally foraged ingredients.
Between the work that Oonagh is doing with Wild Kitchen, and the existence of these community gardens, I felt increasingly more hopeful that Ireland will catch up with the rest of Europe on the concept of understanding better where their food comes from.
Irish Food Tourism in County Kerry
We saw something similar when we toured County Kerry, just on the other side of the River Shannon from County Clare. It’s been years since we spent anytime in County Kerry, as most of our trips focus on Limerick and Clare. When we ventured across the mountainous Connor’s Pass and descended into Dingle, I was amazed at what we found.
What’s interesting in Kerry is that the tourism board is not just focusing on Irish food tourism, but trying to change the way the locals think about food too, similar to what Oonagh talked about. One of their publications, The Kerry Food Story, focuses on the local ingredients we experienced in our Global Village Restaurant meal. By encouraging the locals to buy locally sourced North Kerry Beef, or West Kerry Lamb, they are realizing that the concept of food tourism doesn’t have to focus solely on the tourists.
There is also a pride in the local food scene, where the chefs in Kerry feel that there is absolutely no reason why their restaurants can’t stand up among the best restaurants in the world. Our meal at the Global Village made me wholeheartedly agree.
There are a half dozen cookery schools located in County Kerry, and the Dingle Cookery School is just one. Other courses are offered, which focus on baking Irish breads, vegetarian cooking, and even chocolate making. There are food festivals throughout the year, and regular farmers’ markets.
It’s a but of an understatement to say that I was entirely surprised, and encouraged, to see these kinds of offerings in both counties. Ireland has come a long way from fish and chips and hearty Irish stews. We’ve only scratched the surface of the Irish food tourism offerings in County Kerry and County Clare, but we hope to return next year to explore even more. More important, I hope the locals continue to explore the Irish food traditions, to keep them alive.
We were hosted by Failte Ireland during our food tour of the Wild Atlantic Way, but all opinions are my own.